The movie Star Wars (1977) and the evolving Star Wars universe never were just films or simple family entertainment. To many fans, seemingly it became a surrogate religion or a way of life.
The merchandise, action figurines, literature or cartoon adaptations and spin-offs earned George Lucas and Lucasfilm fortune after fortune (he directed and produced the very first film for just $150,000, but received from Fox the right to direct any sequels and was granted marketing rights for merchandise of the movie). And finally somehow estranged him from the fan community.
The saga with now nine main movies and several live action-related spin-offs were a source of fascination for huge fan communities, but also a reason for massive criticism, anger and even protest and boycott of that same group.
In a way, this is all intelligible; if we consider that there are by now three separate trilogies. First the “early” (some fans argue the “real”) trilogy and after that the prequel trilogy, starting in 1999 with George Lucas’ The Phantom Menace (and the third trilogy to be completed in December 2019).
In 1999, communication with fans, audiences, marketing and treatment and appreciation of the director’s works became very difficult and started countless debates and quarrels resembling feuds. The essentials: with the start of the second trilogy, first-generation fans who watched, consumed and (in part) lived and “identified” themselves with the plot of the original trilogy (which they experienced as young adults) were upset and confused when they observed the alterations of the Star Wars universe.
Particularly the quality of the script, dialogue, alleged racism and specifically the character or Jar Jar Bings, the first digital character in film history (and probably one of the most detested), were the reason for dispute. Members of the same fan group, the “bashers,” also criticized George Lucas for changing and editing parts of the story line and entire scenes for his Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition in 1997.
When he still owned Lucasfilm and other production and special effects companies. The other large group of fans, the “gushers,” grew up with the prequel trilogy and basically found no fault in it, taking this part of the saga as the gospel truth. In 2005, the prequel trilogy officially ended with The Revenge of the Sith; at that time, no more live-action parts were either panned or in the making.
In 2008, Lucas stated that there would definitely be no new Star Wars movies, essentially because the saga was the story of Darth Vader and with his death, the story had come to an end. However, Lucas was also known to change his mind about the future of the space saga.
In 2012, Lucas sold his Lucasfilm company to Walt Disney (for $4,05 billion). This was a huge break with “traditions,” and the sale shook fan communities worldwide like an earthquake; as some articles of this book show, to many fans this was perceived as something resembling an assault on deeply rooted parts of their identity and experience. In a way, it was comparable only to alterations of a people’s religion or philosophy.
The many changes, new ways of marketing, design, inventing and possible future development of the Star Wars stories under Disney’s reign are the subject of this book.
The wonder and critique following Lucas’s sale, as he was known for a long time as a major critic of the studio system, came first; he despised the situation of the director who was totally under control of the studios. But, as the authors state here, it seems that over the years “…Lucas would steadily grow into the absolute ruler of his of his entertainment kingdom, forgoing his highly publicized anxieties about working within the dictates of Hollywood’s industrial complex. Over time, Lucas would become the very things that he despised most about the studio system; a Cromwellian protector of the Star Wars Commonwealth…”
What is maybe also important here, are the anxieties and concerns of millions of Star Wars fans to watch their favorite characters of the Star Wars EU (Extended Universe with masses of characters on various planets,) undergo some sort of “Disney-fication.” Meaning nice, comfortable, mostly nonviolent and too easy to follow plots in the manner of other Disney products that, in fact, were addressed mainly to children and sold as safe family entertainment.
This went along with the disapproval of many fans, namely that a sale like that would cause Star Wars to lose its “authenticity,” which in a way is hard to believe, as the saga deals not with real historical events. (On the other hand, as the trademark owner the company actually could do whatever appeals to them with the universe; they would do so in order to sell more theater tickets and merchandise and reach more consumers. The interesting thing here is that the consumers have already been attracted and they as a community request a say in the future of the saga. Which is rather an absurd situation.) Disney already owns various brands and franchises (and universes), such as The Muppets, Indiana Jones, The Chronicles of Narnia, Pirates of the Caribbean, Winnie the Pooh and others.)
Disney’s Star Wars features twenty-one chapters in two big sections altogether, where many aspects of this franchise are being discussed, also covering Episode VII: The Force Awakens and Rogue One (2016). (The movies Solo (2018) and The Last Jedi (2017) are only very briefly mentioned here). “The aim of the book is to introduce readers to a series of perspectives and analytical frameworks centered on the Disney era of Star Wars, while also drawing upon the forty-year history of the intellectual property in order to distinguish key shifts that have occurred at the level of industry, narrative, and reception.” Section one,”Production and Promotion,” concentrates on the “industrial regime change from multiple perspectives.” Changes in audiences, public criticism, organized fandom and expectations of the consumer end are the topic of the second section “Reception and Participation.”
Readers will find many usually neglected aspects of the Star Wars-after-Disney discussion like video games, female characters in the TV show, comic books, the franchise and effects on Disney’s theme parks. Not to forget (real-world) conflicts and disputes over PC that are continued on fictional planets. “Disney’s Star Wars has often been a lighting rod for political and ideological conflict, with some audiences critiquing the shift toward multicultural and gender diversity as nothing less than social justice propaganda.”
Even though the purchase of Lucasfilm was unique (as the copyrights and licensing of entire story lines, thousands of fictional characters and planets, ethnics and relationships were part of the deal), anybody interested in the marketing and franchising of popcultural products and the psychology of fandom that informs various generations will find substantial lessons here.
Review by Dr. A. Ebert © 2019
W. Proctor and R. McCulloch (eds.) Disney’s Star Wars: Forces of Production, Promotion, and Reception. (Fandom and Culture Series), University of Iowa Press, 2019, 395 p.